on 17 November 2013
Although the 1980s Prince Consort recording of The Beauty Stone was a valiant effort in pointing up the glories of a profound, complex work, this new recording is a major milestone for Sullivan enthusiasts and lovers of British opera. Huge credit is due to Chandos and the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society for a worthy successor to 2009's Ivanhoe and to Robin Gordon-Powell, whose musicological dedication means that we can experience the opera as originally conceived.
Repeated listening to Ivanhoe has not dispelled the impression that, notwithstanding some wonderful set pieces and outstanding individual performances, the work as a whole lacks dramatic cohesion and provides a musical experience which is somehow less than the sum of its parts. This may be due not only to Sturgis' and Sullivan's own conception but also to the ponderous tempi adopted in places in the Chandos production and an unevenness of quality in the soloists.
Few such criticisms can be made of the current opera or its performance. The wordiness and cod-mediaevalism of his dialogue aside, Pinero's plot is fundamentally strong and the challenge of giving Carr's diffuse lyrics musical expression clearly engendered some of Sullivan's finest work. In response, conductor Rory Macdonald motivates chorus and orchestra to give of their very best and he brings palpable focus and energy to the proceedings.
Of the principals, Toby Spence, Stephen Gadd and Catherine Wyn-Rogers match here their fine contributions to Ivanhoe. Mr Spence as Philip skilfully adapts his vocal personality to the dramatic situation and Ms Wyn-Rogers as Joan conveys maternal authority and protectiveness. Mr Gadd's natural vocal sonority and refinement are arguably a little at odds with the character of the humble weaver Simon but he sings so beautifully as to silence any objection. Elin Manahan Thomas is an inspired casting choice: her pure soprano is ideal to portray Laine's innocence and steadfast faith. Madeleine Shaw is equally persuasive as Jacqueline, negotiating with ease the topmost vocal line at the climax of the Beauty Contest (CD 1 Track 17). Sullivan differentiates the contestants themselves superbly (the music for Barbe being especially lovely) and the executants of these roles are a delight. As Guntran, David Stout possesses a glorious bass voice and - aside from what sounds to be a linguistic slip in his main solo ("Eastern's wanted blighted spell" in CD 2 Track 7) - makes him authoritative and virile. Richard Suart aptly projects the self-importance of the burgomaster, Nicholas Dircks.
At least one earlier reviewer has questioned whether the pivotal role of the Devil needs a bass voice rather than a baritone. This would be at odds with the casting of Walter Passmore in the original Savoy production. Moreover, the solidity of the lower voice would, I feel, rob the role of the suaveness which it demands in places. For me, Alan Opie is absolutely right: his voice is weighty when required and, above all, there is tangible malevolence beneath the surface polish and bonhomie.
The Beauty Stone is a wonderful example of Sullivan's work towards the end of his life with his creative powers undimmed and it has been accorded an impressive rendition in so many respects. Nevertheless, this is why I have given a four rather than a five-star rating:
(1) Rebecca Evans as Saida contrasts well vocally with Laine and delivers a ringing top C at the end of the Act III showpiece aria (CD 2 Track 21). However, her important solos in Act I (CD 1 Track 20) and Act II (CD 2 Track 4) - though undoubtedly sung with professional competence - simply do not catch fire for me. There is more sense of mounting passion and urgency in the Prince Consort performance. I am wondering if Ms Evans was somewhat under the weather during recording as she often sounds to be snatching breaths, and in some odd places. This is noticeable for instance in the Act II solo where the vocal line is delivered as "Safe in her island home, whose sloping glades lean sunward // till they kiss the Eastern main"; one would have expected the breath, if necessary at all, to be taken between `home' and `whose'. Later on, we have "...sea-worn and weary of the clang // of war". Worse still, there is an audible gap in the "Ride on..." melisma at bars 84-86 of the Act III aria. (I recall that Valerie Masterson executed this seamlessly in Sullivan and Co: The Operas That Got Away.)
(2) Given Robin Gordon-Powell's care in producing an authoritative performing edition, it is curious that some alternative high notes are interpolated (i.e. at letter G in the Act I finale and just after letter D in the Act III finale) which the relevant singers do not sound fully secure in so doing. One high note which is in the score is the tenor B flat at the end of No. 13 and this too is sung decidedly off-centre, thereby detracting from what should be a tremendous conclusion. Again, the professionals are outclassed by the Prince Consort here.
(3) As with Ivanhoe, the Chandos engineers seem to have set the general level of the recording too low. I have played the CDs via a decent home hi-fi, car/portable CD players and a computer CD drive and, in all cases, have needed to turn the volume up much higher than usual. To compound the problem, the level between tracks is often variable such that I find I am either dashing back to the volume control to crank it up still further to catch important details or to turn it down to avoid perforated eardrums! This is frustrating when one wants to concentrate on the musical flow and a downside to the overall quality of the product. It is disappointing that the recording does not match the sonic depth, quality and consistency (apparent even at low volumes) of, say, the Dutton Epoch label's pioneering recordings of British music.
I am conscious that this is a very lengthy review but I hope it is justified by such a significant new recording.
on 6 November 2013
It is amazing how often over the centuries press and public alike have just got it so very wrong. One has only to think of the fiasco of the first production of Bizet's CARMEN. With THE BEAUTY STONE, the public and press of 1898 can, perhaps, be forgiven, although having said that, had they had the foresight to look beneath the surface, maybe they would have seen the beauty that was hidden beneath. Alas, it has taken 115 years for this remarkable piece to be brought back to life, but we are the winners and can only regret the neglect that has deprived many generations of the opportunity to hear this remarkable piece.
If fault must be apportioned, then firstly and foremost it should go to Arthur Wing Pinero (author of THE MAGISTRATE, TRELAWNEY OF THE WELLS etc.) for, although he provides an incredibly strong storyline, his interminable dialogue, written in a mock-medieval dialect, basically killed the piece stone dead. Despite pleas from Sullivan to cut and tighten, Pinero would not listen resulting in a first night performance lasting for well over 4 hours (given that this recording of the complete, uncut score lasts for just over 2 hours, that indicates enough spoken dialogue for another full-length play). Pinero then realised his mistake, but by the time he had produced a revised libretto the damage was done and it was too late. THE BEAUTY STONE closed after just 50 performances.
Richard D'Oyly Carte, too, must shoulder some of the blame for his complete miscalculations regarding the cost of the production. His need to import expensive opera singers for the roles of Philip and Saida and an increased chorus. But also his miscalculation about the type of piece that would appeal to a Savoy audience. THE BEAUTY STONE is quite unlike any other piece to play at the Savoy. Had the Royal English Opera House project succeeded, THE BEAUTY STONE would conceivably have followed in the line of IVANHOE, and probably much more successfully than the former work.
In the event, following that original production, the opera sank almost without trace. There were rumours of a production by a London-based amateur company early in the 20th century (Barclay's Bank Operatic Society but I have been unable to trace any record of their past productions), but other than that it was not until an amateur recording on the Pearl label (Prince Consort) and a stage revival at Retford (UK) in 1996 (with a revised libretto) that the public in general had any chance to judge for themselves the merits, or otherwise, of this work.
At last, thanks to the efforts of the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society, and most particularly Robin Gordon-Powell (publisher of a new vocal score, full score and performance material sourced from Sullivan's autographed manuscript score) and of course the commitment of Chandos, we have a performance by which, at last, THE BEAUTY STONE can be fairly judged. The clarity of the recording is excellent, giving a chance at last to hear all the beauty of Sullivan's remarkable orchestrations (no wonder the Savoy orchestra players of the 1890's considered this to be the composers most accomplished score); the chorus is well placed, more forward than in IVANHOE and therefore achieving a better balance against the orchestra and principals. Rory Macdonald sets an absolutely cracking pace and this results in crowd scenes full of bustle and life, but also other scenes where tension becomes tangible - elements missing from the previous recording.
Atmosphere is created magically from the outset - the opening duet for Simon and Joan, "Click, clack" is redolent of the dingy, dimly lit, musty weaver's hovel. Laine's prayer "Dear Mary mother" is heartachingly beautiful and superbly sung Elin Manahan Thomas; Alan Opie is almost Svengali-like as the Devil, making "When it dwelt in that rock" almost mesmeric. Rebecca Evans has a number of superb passages as Saida, Philip's mistress; "Oh, turn thine eyes away" is particularly beautifully sung (those who think they recognise this melody will probably be familiar with John Lanchbery's TALES OF BEATRIX POTTER when he uses it for the pas de deux of Pigling Bland and the Black Pig). Saida's extended scene "Safe in her island home" is revealed as a remarkable piece of writing with it's oriental colourings, whilst the showpiece "What laggard steed" is performed with the urgency it needs - an urgency which, in other recordings in the past, has been lacking.
As with THE YEOMEN OF THE GUARD (but much more so), THE BEAUTY STONE is a far more serious/romantic work and therefore the characters that provide some comic relief are exceptionally important. In this case the main burden of this responsibility falls to Madeleine Shaw in the character of Jacqueline, an unusual role as, although she starts out as a girl, under the influence of the Devil she spend most of the opera as a page boy - so in many ways this is a trouser role. Her duet with the Devil, "My name is Crazy Jacqueline", is absolutely wonderful and, despite the helter-skelter pace (which is just right), every word can be heard. One advantage of Mr Gordon-Powell's research is the restoration of a large amount of discarded material (ditched in an effort to shorten the original performance time), the advantage for us being the inclusion of the second duet for Jacqueline and the Devil "Up and down" in Act 2 Scene 3 - another delightful piece that certainly should never have been cut.
The other major restorations are the extended beauty competition scene in Act 1 Scene 2, and an important trio for Simon, Joan and Laine in Act 2 Scene 2, plus a great deal of incidental music; scene changes, melos, melodrame etc. The duet for Simon and Joan, "I would see a maid" is just another piece which should never have suffered the neglect imposed upon it over the years.
To conclude, we have here a piece of operatic/musical theatre which, through miscalculation and snobbery on the part of the musical establishment regarding the composer, has lain neglected for far too long and maybe the opera houses and companies of the world need to sit up and re-evaluate their opinions of the works of Sullivan, for here is an opera that would not disgrace the stages of any of the world's major opera houses or companies, and it is presented with a superb cast, chorus and orchestra under the direction of a highly accomplished conductor who has undoubtedly committed himself wholeheartedly to a piece, the merits of which he utterly believes in.
A prince has kissed a sleeping beauty and she has awoken!!
on 15 November 2013
For 30 years enthusiasts have had to put up with the Prince Consort recording of this fabulous piece, which, while better than nothing, has its limitations, notably in the quality of the orchestral playing and some of the soloists. We are now treated to a professional recording of this masterpiece, complete with the (relatively) recently rediscovered numbers which were cut after early performances of the work ran to more than four hours.
In scope this is more akin to grand opera than operetta/G & S and it is no surprise that Savoy opera audiences, raised on a diet of the Mikado and the Gondoliers, did not take to it (although ironically it features an unreconstructed `lozenge plot' scenario of a type that Sir Arthur had been refusing to set for Gilbert for over a decade). This is, however, a work with more tunes than Sullivan's ostensible grand opera, Ivanhoe - and the Beauty Stone is the superior work for that. In that the work has many long lyrical scenes with through composed music, the work's most closely related cousin is perhaps Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. And what wonderful music. Even the cut music is of interest Barbe's solo within the beauty contest scene shows that Bovigny is perhaps not too far away from Carmen's Spanish hideout, whilst the second Devil/Jacqueline duet is quite fun and, rather like the first, leavens the heavier music that surrounds it. (These two are amongst the few numbers that would have appealed to Savoy audiences).Even the unaccompanied chorale at `hail to the lord of our land' is a source of innocent merriment. And fans who already knew and loved the main body of the music will find it being brought lovingly to life
One of the main joys of this recording compared to the Prince Consort one is the standard of the orchestra playing. McDonald draws some fine playing from them. Most of the soloists, being professionals, are very good too, although some sound more inside their roles than others. Rebecca Evans as Saida has a good voice (as you would expect) but may as well be singing the phone directory for all the words you can make out. I would have preferred a bit more profondo in the Devil than that supplied by Alan Opie's baritone, (rather like that possessed by the Guntran, say) although Opie sings well enough. Toby Spence's Lord Philip has some high notes that are not entirely pleasing to the ear, but he is still pretty good overall and a massive improvement upon his Prince Consort predecessor. All the other singers are fine, notably the Laine and the Jacqueline.
A few other minor moans. The cheeky devil imagery of the packaging seems inappropriate to me and I would have preferred the first photo I encountered in the accompanying booklet to be that of the composer (the real star after all) rather than the conductor. Last but not least, it seems to have been recorded at a much lower level (and an inconsistent one at that) to every other CD in my collection, I seem to be spending most of my car journeys turning it up so that I can hear it, turning it up again and then abruptly turning it down to avoid being deafened.
All these very minor quibbles aside, this is a fine recording of a glorious opera which will remain the definitive recording for decades to come and I would recommend anyone to buy it.
Last but not least, a big hand for the Sullivan Society, which instigated the whole project and raised tens of thousands of pounds to make it possible.